Sunday, 10 April 2011 21:50

Teachers Have A Leadership Choice to Make

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In my most recent posts I have been talking about the choices we have available to us when it comes to managing our students.  One choice is rooted in Douglas McGragor’s Theory X (described in previous post) and requires the use of rewards and/or punishments to control student behavior and effort due to the belief  that students dislike work and will avoid it if they can.  The other choice is rooted in Theory Y and takes advantage of the idea that students want to work hard and will commit themselves fully to objectives that mean something to them.


As I have also mentioned, from the time we first begin our teacher training programs, many of us are led to believe that rewarding students in order to maintain control of the classroom is the way to go.  Often, we are shown no alternative to this method.  We learn about the theory of behaviorism and the idea of positive reinforcement in our courses, we work with master teachers who reward their students, and then we begin our first job in a school where our colleagues use rewards.  We see no reason to question this approach because the professionals we respect offer incentives to their kids.  It’s all around us.  We begin to reach a comfort level with this practice.  After a few years of teaching, we become so comfortable with rewarding students that we cannot imagine managing a classroom without them.  

To many teachers, there is no management choice because an alternative approach has never been presented.  Rewarding has become so commonplace that when teachers discuss the issue, the conversations tend to focus on the what, when, and how of rewards rather than the why.   

Understandably, teachers who have reached this comfort level with rewarding students will find any criticism of the practice unsettling, whether those criticisms come from me or from other authors, such as Alfie Kohn, who in his influential book Punished by Rewards describes in great detail the problems associated with the use of extrinsic motivation.  Because Kohn’s work calls into question practices they hold so dear, many educators will initially resist or reject his conclusions.  The most common response to Kohn’s findings from teachers who have enjoyed success with the use of rewards is, “But they work!”  I have heard this reply numerous times.  


If by “work,” teachers mean that rewards produce temporary obedience in students, then yes, they may work.  If, however, they mean that rewards lead to the development and internalization of effective habits, then they do anything but work.  Furthermore, bringing about this temporary obedience comes at a tremendous cost.  It comes at the expense of autonomy, relationships, creativity, interest, meaning, challenge, and other valuable entities that lie at the core of a quality classroom.


Another common response to Kohn’s work is, “But rewards motivate people!”  There’s truth in this statement, though not in the way most people interpret it.  Rewards do not motivate individuals in any intrinsic sense.  According to Kohn, “They motivate people to work for rewards.”  They narrow our focus and reduce tasks to mere stepping stones.  Moreover, W. Edwards Deming, another author to whom I’ve referred in previous posts, remarks that when children are rewarded for doing well in school, “they learn to expect rewards for good performance.” (A complete citation of Deming’s work and a full description of how his work connects to the work of teachers and students in our schools can be found in my Eight Essentials for Empowered Teaching and Learning, K-8.)


Students, in fact, can become addicted to rewards.  My first experience with this phenomenon came during my student-teaching.  After school one day, I asked one boy if he could stay for a few minutes to help me clean up the room.  His response: “What do you give me for it?”


One of the most troubling problems with rewards is that they demonstrate a lack of confidence in our kids and sell them short.  By relying on extrinsic incentives to control our students’ behavior, it’s almost as if we are announcing to our classes:


• “We don’t think you are willing or able to behave and perform well on your own.”


• “We need to use these tricks to manipulate you into doing the things you should be doing anyway.”


• “These rewards benefit us, not you, but without them, we just don’t think we’re going to get very much done in here.”  


Of course, teachers who administer rewards don’t think like that, but that’s the subconscious message rewards send.


This issue can be an emotional one among educators, and as I have said before, in criticizing the use of rewards in the classroom, I am in no way criticizing teachers who use them.  My purpose is to raise awareness of the issue and offer more effective alternatives.  Several years ago I was teaching a graduate course for educators, and after my presentation about the harmful effects of rewards, one of my students was completely deflated.  He had always used rewards to manage student behavior and couldn’t imagine gettting through a school day without them.  To many teachers, giving up the use of rewards is tantamount to unilateral disarmament.

The good news is that there’s a better way.  Managing a classroom in a way consistent with McGregor’s Theory Y is not only possible but also better for children and more satisfying for teachers.

I put the pieces of this approach together in future blog posts.

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